With Halloween over, the scariest thing on the calendar is this year’s presidential election. And one of the scariest things about the 2016 election may be the presidential candidates’ hidden health problems and cover-ups.
The problem of poor presidential health is not new, however.
Approximately half of all presidents, going back to George Washington, have struggled with serious health problems while in office. In fact, during the 1800s, every president suffered from some debilitating medical problem(s) during their terms in office. Washington himself almost died not once, not twice, but three times while in office.
In my own career, I have sought to bring attention to these problems by doing public exhibitions in Washington, D.C., in Philadelphia (the nation’s first capital), and during the national political conventions in summer 2000.
I even met with the late Sen. Arlen Specter and Rep. Henry Hyde of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees, respectively, to propose laws implementing the 25th Amendment on presidential death and disability. The law spells out what to do in the event of presidential death and succession. The government even goes so far as to specify a “designated survivor” down through all the president’s Cabinet members in the event of a national disaster. But it remains very unclear on how to handle presidential disability, especially with a prolonged, chronic disability. I also wrote an article for American Heritage magazine on the topic back in 2002.
The problem is not theoretical
During his second term, President Eisenhower looked like an old man, although he was only 62 when first elected. He had serious heart attacks and a stroke, with long hospitalizations, while VP Richard Nixon stood by, kept completely in the dark. Ike’s cardiologist, the famous Paul Dudley White, repeatedly gave misleading statements to the public, downplaying the seriousness of Ike’s medical conditions.
After these health scares of the 1950s, two young and apparently vigorous men ran for president in 1960. Nixon truly had a clean bill of health. But JFK only created the appearance of health and “vigor.”
In reality, JFK suffered from chronic back pain ever since the sinking of his Navy PT 103 boat in the South Pacific during WW II. He also suffered from Addison’s disease, an insufficiency of the adrenal glands, which makes the patient unable to respond to any kind of stress without artificial hormone treatments.
JKF’s challenger in the 1960 presidential primary, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (who eventually became his VP), accused Kennedy of hiding his adrenal insufficiency. JFK denied it and “got off” on a technicality since Addison’s original 19th century description of adrenal insufficiency was due to destruction of the gland by tuberculosis. Kennedy suffered from primary adrenal insufficiency.
But Johnson’s attack motivated Kennedy to bring up his opponent’s heart attacks, which he had suffered in the Senate while Ike was hiding his own problems in the White House. (Good thing the Russian Communists didn’t actually attack then.)
In 1992, I discovered and reviewed JFK’s “secret” autopsy report from 1963 in the Walter Reed archives. It revealed the absence of any adrenal gland tissue.
My commander at the time, Navy Medical Corps Captain Robert F. Karnei, who had actually been “in and out” of the autopsy suite back on that night in November 1963, also told me the pathologists could not find any adrenal tissue.
Early in the century, Woodrow Wilson suffered a serious stroke in 1919 while vigorously promoting the League of Nations as a “peacekeeping” body after WW I. Wilson was completely incapacitated for the rest of his term through March 1921.
But his chief of staff, his White House physician, and his second wife completely covered up Wilson’s medical condition. Had the public known, efforts in the Senate — led by Henry Cabot Lodge — to defeat the League of Nations and pursue our own independent course of strong U.S. diplomacy may have better prevailed.
Four presidents also died in office following serious illnesses, William Henry Harrison (1841), Zachary Taylor (1850), Warren G. Harding (1923) and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1945).
Secrecy about health harms the president and the nation
Due to insistence on secrecy, cover-ups, and failure to follow standard medical protocols (by making special exceptions for VIPs), seriously ill presidents also end up with substandard care. (Remind you of anyone?) Thus, both the president and the nation are ill-served, despite all our modern, expensive medical technology.
Although either of the two current candidates would be the oldest to serve if elected to office, according to biostatistics alone, a man of Trump’s age is likely to live another 15 years, and a woman of Clinton’s age another 18 years.
But as Mark Twain said, and to bring it right back to this year’s campaign, “there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.”